Military Shows Off Experimental Heat Ray

Correction April 10, 2007

In the broadcast version of this story, NPR incorrectly stated that the ray gun penetrates 1/16th of an inch into the skin. The U.S. military says the ray gun penetrates 1/64th of an inch into the skin.

The military demonstrates a "heat ray" developed as a way to disperse threatening crowds. Officials say the electro-magnetic device does no permanent damage, but makes people feel as if their skin is burning.

Copyright © 2007 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning, I'm Steve Inskeep.

The U.S. military recently gave its first public demonstration of its new ray gun. The device has a range of over a third of a mile, and the rays travel at the speed of light. If you're hit, your skin would feel like it's burning. The military says the rays do not do any physical damage. And the military hopes to use them to disperse threatening crowds.

Now, you might think this science fiction weapon was developed in a suitably secret high-tech lab, but you would only be partly right.

NPR's David Kestenbaum reports.

DAVID KESTENBAUM: In the year 2000, when this technology was still classified, Douglas Beason agreed to be hit with the invisible rays. It was a clear sunny day in the New Mexico desert, and he was in his underwear. That was the experimental protocol. In fact, the first guy up was going to wear a leopard skin pair.

Dr. DOUGLAS BEASON (Los Alamos National Laboratory): Because this will probably go down to annals of history, they didn't want the first test subject with a leopard-skin underwear.

KESTENBAUM: Beason is now the associate lab director for threat reduction at Los Alamos National Laboratory. When his turn came, he stood in the opening of a tent with a bathrobe on, his back toward the ray gun device over a third of a mile away.

Dr. DOUGLAS BEASON: They had foam laid out in front of you and at back of you so that you could fall or you could leap to the side, because they knew that even testing this over very small parts of your body, that it hurt like heck and that you want to get out of the way.

So standing in the tent flap they said, count down in 10 seconds, drop the bathrobe - three, two, one - and instantly you felt your entire back, your head, your arms, your legs, everything felt like a supercharged oven had just been opened up. I started counting and didn't get past two. And I had to leap to the side.

KESTENBAUM: Researchers measured his skin temperature, which had only gone up slightly. He felt okay, but pretty shaken.

Dr. BEASON: And then they said now it's time for the next test. And I said, I'm not so sure I want to go back for that next test.

KESTENBAUM: What he was feeling was a blast of electromagnetic energy. The wavelengths used are far shorter than FM radio, shorter than the waves that warm food in a microwave oven. The military says they only penetrate 1/64th of an inch into the skin. The skin does heat up. But Beason says the brain thinks it's worst than it is.

Dr. BEASON: That heat is transferred to your nerve endings, that your nerves think that the skin is being heated, and it is just an incredible, incredible experience.

KESTENBAUM: The military now had a series of videos - typically a grown man stands calmly in a field, then for no apparent reason, he jumps like he's been goosed. You can hear the guy holding the video camera chuckle. The idea of the heat ray is that it provides an alternative to bullets. The military put together another video demonstrating a hypothetical scenario.

(Soundbite of video)

KESTENBAUM: Some guards are stationed at the entrance to a facility, and an angry crowd approaches the barbed wire fence. Are they carrying explosives? Maybe they're just unhappy citizens. The guards don't want to have to shoot.

(Soundbite of video)

Unidentified Man: This is your final warning. All individuals need to vacate areas (unintelligible).

KESTENBAUM: After three warnings, the crowd does not disperse, so the guards hit a couple of people with the invisible rays, and everyone scatters. The military calls the system Active Denial. Right now they have a version that can fit on a Humvee. The waves come from what looks like a big dish antenna on top.

Susan Levine says the device is set up so it can't deliver a dangerous dose. Her title is principal deputy of the Joint Non-Lethal Directorate. She's based on Quantico, Virginia.

Ms. SUSAN LEVINE (Deputy Director, Joint Non-Lethal Directorate): Over the last 12 years that we've done this research, there's been about a total of 10,000 exposures.

KESTENBAUM: What's the worst thing that's happened to someone who's been hit with it?

Ms. LEVINE: The worst thing that has happened was early in the laboratory studies there was a setting (unintelligible) laboratory equipment that was held on a little longer than it should have been. It resulted in a second-degree burn about the size, I believe, of a nickel, or a little - or a penny. So there was a small blister created. And I think that was like in 1999.

KESTENBAUM: Is there any defense against such a terrifying weapon? The military says clothes don't work. But any college student who takes a physics course will learn something called Gauss's Law, which says that no electric field can penetrate a conductor.

Would a coating of a tin foil protect you?

Ms. LEVINE: Yeah, I'm not sure. We usually don't go into discussions on things that could be considered as countermeasures.

KESTENBAUM: Even then, she says, the device would have already served its purpose. If someone approached the checkpoint clothed in tin foil, you'd know he was up to no good.

David Kestenbaum, NPR News.

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